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Extremism is Trumping Rationality in the Modern World

The deepest challenge to Judaism is that we have given up on the belief in the rational capacity of human beings to build a decent life.
Shalom Hartman Institute Founder Rabbi Prof. David Hartman z”l was a leading thinker among philosophers of contemporary Judaism and an internationally renowned Jewish author. As part of his unique vision to deal with the challenges of Judaism in the modern world, Rabbi Prof. David Hartman founded the Shalom Hartman Institute in 1976 in honor of his father. He was a man who is with us no more A thinker, teacher, and lover of mankind Our

This essay is adapted from a lecture in Rabbi David Hartman’s Winter 2009 Pomrenze Lecture Series.


If one reflects on the changes that have occurred in modern Jewish history over the last 50 years, one cannot help but feel there is no necessarily rational direction to history. Contingency and unpredictability appear to be the ruling principles. Let me reflect with you on some of these changes.

Years ago, who would have thought that Orthodoxy would become the most vital religious movement for modern Jews? We who studied at Yeshiva University used to be envious of those who came out of the Jewish Theological Seminary. When we looked at Orthodox synagogues as compared to Conservative and Reform, we felt like shleps.

Our salaries were much lower. The shuls were not impressive. It was attractive to join the Conservative movement; it was the right place to be if one wanted to go to shul. Their shuls and community center buildings provided for multiple activities for daily life. I remember how envious I was of the beautiful gyms in Reform and Conservative synagogues. The Orthodox could provide only cemetery grounds for burial as a perk. There was a dreary sense of old age in Orthodox shuls.

So, who would have thought then that within 20-30 years the movement that would be going through the greatest crisis today as to its own future is the Conservative movement?

Now, take a look at the Lakewood yeshiva, which in some very important ways represents European learning and culture. Today, the Lithuanian-style yeshiva world is producing talmidim who are establishing kollels across America. Even the term kollel has become part of the parlance of Jews across America.

A rabbi recently mentioned to me that his interdenominational day school, which took years to establish, had to close because of a kollel decree that said no to sharing a school with the Conservative or Reform. What is amazing is that the community accepted this. Anything that smells of adjusting to the modern world or pluralism and similar values is totally rejected by the kollel influence in the community.

American teens come to Israel to study and return with an Orthodox mindset, beard, and paiyot, which terrifies the parents, who sent them to Israel to appreciate modern Jewry’s greatest creation.

A young person told me that after his marriage he was going to Uman to the grave of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav. Can you imagine that young people years ago would go to the grave of Rebbe Nachman for their honeymoons? Could you have pictured that type of world in the 1920s?

The whole obsession with kashrut and different levels of kashrut has become the new obsessive religion: The OU, the K, and, over every restaurant in Jerusalem, mehadrin she’be mehadrin, implying very strict standards. I joke that the only reason the mashiach has not come is that he wouldn’t have a kosher place to eat in. Wherever he would go there would be a group of Jews who would say that the place itself does not meet the highest standards of kashrut. Who would want to come into a world where you would starve to death?

It seems that the more extreme, the more right wing, the more you have a sense of being a holy Jew.

Even in Israel, the dominant spiritual teaching, which lines the bookshelves of Israelis, is the teaching of Rav Kook. If you read his books, which are profound, you won’t understand what he is talking about most of the time. He and his followers live in mystical worlds with mystic languages, intelligible only to the few.

As for the great success of Chabad – what was their great achievement? They would give latkes out on Hanukkah and special kosher matzos out on Pesach. They danced with fervor, and they were sincere. Suddenly, the new truth was sincerity and dedication, not necessarily the theological content.

The less intelligible things are these days, the more attractive they have become.

The heresy in the Middle Ages was philosophy – the teachings of Aristotle and Plato. Today it’s not modern secular ideas that is the challenge. The deepest challenge to Judaism is that we have given up on the belief in the rational capacity of human beings to build a decent life. We’ve given up on reason, the greatest treasure that human beings have.

Rationality is considered a bad word. It lacks fervor and passion. Can there be a future for Judaism and the Jewish people if we destroy the human capacity to distinguish what is true and worthwhile and what is false and empty?

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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